Holdsworth relishing the fight to keep Dons afloat

FA Cup: Original 'Crazy Gang' member hopes to evoke memories of Wimbledon's former glories against Birmingham today
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The Independent Football

Vinnie and Fash are long gone. Plough Lane is a distant memory, kept alive by fans who founded a new club rather than follow a franchise to Milton Keynes. But what's this? After working in the rain for two hours in preparation for today's FA Cup tie at Birmingham City, the outfield players gang up on the goalkeepers for five minutes of ritual mud wrestling. Wimbledon, it seems, are still crazy after all these years.

Dean Holdsworth has seen a few 10-man brawls during his two spells with Wimbledon. Seldom, though, have they been purely among giggling colleagues. Like the wily predator he is, the 35-year-old striker known as "Reg" (after Coronation Street's own Holdsworth) darts in and out of the mêlée, landing some telling blows while leaving the bottom of the heap to hardier souls and players barely half his age.

By the standards of the original Crazy Gang, whose prime movers would burn their team-mates' clothes or make them complete a cross-country run naked from the waist down, the scene being enacted on a practice pitch in south-west London is almost circumspect.

As Holdsworth points out, however, adopting the role of elder statesman over a cup of tea in the very lounge where Wimbledon's FA Cup triumph of 1988 was plotted, there was always a method in their madness.

"It was all based around camaraderie. It was never just about cutting up people's suits. You had to be a bit more than a lunatic. We had real quality here. In my second season [1993-94] we finished sixth in the Premiership. The joke was that we'd qualified for EuroDisney.

"It was more than an underdog mentality: it was us against the world. Or it felt like it, with some of the media attacking 'the Wimbledon way'. Sam Hammam [then the owner] loved it, and we used it as a powerful tool."

How Wimbledon need to summon the old fighting spirit now, and not just for the visit to a Birmingham side themselves respectably placed in the Premiership. Despite swapping a living death as Crystal Palace's tenants for a fresh start at a hockey stadium in north Buckinghamshire, the club remain in administration.

Their best prospects are being "picked off on the cheap", as Holdsworth puts it, having seen Nigel Reo-Coker [sold to West Ham United on Thursday] and Patrick Agyemang [Gillingham] leave recently. And they are bottom of the First Division, 10 points from safety.

"I feel for the young lads because they're seeing the people they've grown up with going suddenly," reflects Holdsworth, who often helps out by coaching the forwards. "I feel particularly for Stuart Murdoch. He has been given a lousy hand, with none of the resources other clubs give their managers. Not many guys would have hung around faced with the difficulties he has had. Every day is a challenge.

"But we're not ready to roll over yet. We're hoping to come out of administration soon, and to add to the squad rather than selling. The uncertainty has been damaging, but one player leaving means an opportunity for someone else, although I do worry that some talented young boys are having to play at a stage they're not ready for.

"We've had one big embarrassment, when we lost 6-0 at Nottingham Forest. Otherwise we've had several 1-0 defeats when we deserved more, and some good away wins, at West Bromwich and Reading and at Stoke in the third round, which showed what we are capable of."

Wimbledon's problems have received scant sympathy from a football community more inclined to laud the efforts of the fan-founded AFC Wimbledon. So why did he come back? "I thought it was the right thing to do and I'm glad I did it. I just saw it as a club I'd been through so much with.

"I've known Stuart [Murdoch] since I was an apprentice at Watford, and he warned me it would be a hell of a challenge. He also knew I wouldn't be worried by things going on off the pitch."

The MK Dons/AFC schism, in other words. Asked what he would say to those who see his return as a betrayal, he replies: "Move on. Times are making things change. We have to move with them. I'm a realist: the club would have folded [had they not relocated]."

The players' sense of what defines a club's identity is not necessarily the same as the supporters'; they still report for duty every day at the training ground beside the A3 exactly as they did when folk devils called Jones and Fashanu outraged the so-called purists. In Holdsworth's eyes, it is the same club as the one he helped to reach the semi-finals in 1997.

"We lost 3-0 to Chelsea at Highbury and Gianfranco Zola was unstoppable. Sometimes you have to tap the table, as they say in snooker, and appreciate a fantastic performance."

Three years later, the competition led him to Wembley with Bolton Wanderers, if only at the last-four stage. Late in a barren stalemate against Aston Villa, Holdsworth met Eidur Gudjohnsen's cross in front of a gaping goal. The normally clinical finisher ballooned the ball over the bar, though he showed the character to bury a penalty as Villa won the shoot-out.

His twin brother David, once of Birmingham and now flying up weekly from Essex to play for Gretna in the Scottish League, was the captain of Sheffield United when they lost in the semi-finals a year later. If there is a family curse, at least it does not cover the fourth round.

"It will be great for our kids to pit themselves against Premiership players and see how far off they are," says Dean, aka Reg, himself looking forward to facing his ex-Wimbledon colleague Kenny Cunningham.

"I can't wait to let 'em know we're still around. We've got a puncher's chance. We might land one. Then we could be on the ropes for 12 rounds!" That friendly fracas in the park may yet prove to have been time well spent.

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